Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are responsible for much of the problem we have with poor quality air. They are unstable chemical compounds, which contain carbon, and readily vaporize into the air. The vast majority of synthetic objects which man produces off gas VOCs, many of which are toxic—some so toxic that even if their emissions were only one part per billion of the air we breathe, they can cause harm, dizziness, nauseous, headaches, and difficulty in breathing,; plus heart disease and cancer. Benzene is such a VOC and makes up 1% of every gallon of gasoline we use. Plus it is emitted by television sets and computer monitors.
In our homes or offices, there are literally thousands of items emitting VOCs into the air– walls, carpets, magic markers, furniture, computers, copiers, television sets, even our mattresses and clothes,. Outside, VOCs mix with nitric oxide and sunlight to form smog, also known as low level ozone.
Ozone attacks the respiratory system. It enters the lungs, burns through cell walls.and causes cellular fluid to start seeping in. This causes breathing to become rapid, shallow and painful. Exposure to ozone over long periods of time leads to stiffening of the lungs and a reduced ability to breathe. The results of a study conducted in California in the 80s showed that children who live in ozone polluted areas have smaller than normal lungs and the adults who lived there had lost up to 75% of their lung capacity. Ozone gives rise to all sorts of respiratory problems, including asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema and VOCs aggravate the situation.
Contrary to popular wisdom, being indoors does not offer clear protection from outdoor pollution, or from ozone-related adverse health effects. This is because no building is airtight. Outdoor pollutants enter through gaps in the building’s envelope, through the ventilation system, through windows and doors and other openings, and when inside we breathe them in. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that up to 40% of the energy used by buildings for heating and cooling is lost due to infiltration—the inflow of outdoor air into the indoors. When outdoor air enters, outdoor pollutants including ozone enter as well.
Once indoors, ozone quickly reacts with materials inside the building, with a slew of plastics and other reactive surface molecules, ranging from carpet fibers to the skin’s natural oils, where it produces toxic chemicals like formaldehyde–another dangerous VOC– and other irritants. “Reaction chemistry” suggests that once ozone combines with other materials, it forms substances worse than ozone itself.
Ozone also reacts with Heating Ventilation and Air Condition components, with filters, duct liners, duct sealing caulks, and neoprene gaskets, causing them to breakdown so even more ozone enters the building. This breakdown process creates toxins which the ducting system then spreads throughout the building. The simple fact is that outdoor ozone only adds to poor indoor quality air.
According to the EPA, VOCs are more prevalent indoors than out, usually two to five times more prevalent. This was verified by the EPA who reported to Congress in 1989 that they had detected more than 900 different VOCs in the air of public buildings. Meanwhile, the average indoor air purifier does not even attempt to deal with VOC removal and those few that do, remove only one or two VOCs at best. Air purifiers which do are exceptionally expensive and require constant filter replacement, which are expensive as well.
In 1973 NASA became concerned about VOCs when it identified 107 volatile organic chemicals, that were off-gassing from synthetic materials inside Skylab III, VOCs which were making astronauts sick. It than embarked upon a research program, hoping to deal with the problem. As they progressed, they realized that buildings also had the same problem, and eventually they found that plants and the microbes around their root systems digest VOCs, after which they discovered what is known as active plant air purification which can increases the air purifying capabilities of a single plant by hundreds of times. If active plant air purification is installed within a building, and attached to the HVAC system, it can take care of the VOC problem.